Last night, Wednesday 29th April 2015, the Scotch Whisky Experience hosted their annual ‘An Evening with the Blenders’ event. A panel of master blenders from around the world were in attendance, fresh from judging the International Spirits Challenge. At £25 a ticket, this was a chance for punters to meet and chat with the experts over a dram and canapés and the list of representatives was as follows:
John Ramsay – Head of judging panel – Former Master Blender at Edrington
Richard Paterson – Master Distiller at Whyte & Mackay
Caroline Martin – Master Blender at Diageo
Shinji Fukoyo – Master Blender at Suntory
Gordon Motion – Master Blender at Edrington
Angela D’Orazio – Master Blender at Mackmyra
Randy Hudson – Master Distiller at Triple 8
David Stewart – Former Master Blender at William Grant & Sons
Billy Leighton – Master Blender at Jameson’s
Tadashi Sakuma – Master Blender at Nikka
This was my first time at the event but there were a few faces familiar to me there. We started off in the shop where, I’m sorry to say, the prices have taken a leap! I wasn’t tempted by the likes of Lagavulin 16 at £60, Caol Ila 12 at £58.50 or Haig Club at £52.50. Given the venue’s close relationship with the industry it is disappointing to see most of the bottles on sale there retailing at well over the RRP. Perhaps this is partly related to the cost of the refurbishment of the top floor, for which they just shelled out £0.5m – another reflection, if any were needed, of the boom time for whisky producers and retailers.
Presently the blenders filed onto the shop mezzanine to be introduced, before the guests were then allowed to proceed upstairs to meet them in person. The stalls were spread around the McIntyre Whisky Gallery, the Sense of Scotland room and the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection room. I only sampled a few whiskies as the pours were generous and each blender had only one or two expressions with them, which were mainly of very high quality and certainly didn’t benefit from being rushed.
First up, I chatted a bit with Shinji Fukoyo of Suntory about Mizunara oak and why it is so rare (sloping ground results in twisted trunks and boughs, slow growth and low yields). Sipping the Yamazaki 18 that he had brought I was blown away, this was actually my favourite dram of the evening, heavily sherried but apparently also containing some Bourbon-casked whisky. It put me in mind of sherry monsters in the style of Glenfarclas or Aberlour but had its own distinctly Japanese character. A tad pricey though at around £160 if you can find it! I probably started on the wrong side of the room as next up was a Nikka 12 year old blend that was pleasant enough but simply couldn’t bear comparison. I didn’t get much time to talk with ‘Tad’ and his English wasn’t very good so I’m not sure of the exact provenance of the expression. On the basis of my sample, I think I prefer the Nikka from the Barrel, which has a real intensity of flavour and could possibly pass for a single malt if one didn’t know better.
My next tipple was from the stall of Angela D’Orazio, a Swede of Italian descent who started out helping at trade shows, was a Glenmorangie ambassador and even managed the Swedish wing of the SMWS until she joined Mackmyra. She had two bottlings, which are due for imminent release in Sweden – I believe it will be a few months before they reach UK shores. The one that left an impression with me was a cloudberry wine cask finish. The spirit was light and floral like a Glenmorangie or a Bladnoch and there was a butterscotch note to it, a little like Nectar D’Or perhaps (though these events are never the best for sampling subtle whiskies and Angela told me the cloudberry wine isn’t sweet like Sauternes).
Next up was Gordon Motion of Edrington who extolled the virtues of well-aged whisky as he poured me a nip of the Cutty Sark 33 year old blend – the grains come from North British and the now-closed Cambus, the malts were relatively few, the eldest being from 1974 (40yo), ranging up to the early ’80s. As he is the master blender for the group that produces Macallan and Highland Park – both premiumised single malts with bold NAS expressions – I wanted to pin him down on this point but there really wasn’t the opportunity to get into such chat with people crowding round for samples. “So,” I inquired, “how much does this retail for?”. “£640,” came the reply, “that’s about £40 worth.” Gulp! Lovely stuff right enough but way out of my league! However it is great that there were whiskies like this at the event, it makes it worth the entry fee alone to sample drams that one would never get the opportunity to try otherwise, whether due to price or availability.
Lastly I ventured into the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection room, where Richard ‘@The_Nose’ Paterson was pouring Dalmore 15 and Caroline Martin of Diageo was dispensing Haig Club. I have to admit I was a little disappointed in both of them, given the supplies at their disposal. I’ve had a bottle of the Dalmore 15 before and it now commands a crazy premium for what is a heavily (overly?) sherried Highland malt. There are Oloroso, Apostles and Matuzalem sherry casks in the mix here, along with a healthy dose of E150 making for a syrupy number that all but drowns out the spirit. The Haig almost made me laugh as I could barely discern anything after the cloying Dalmore. It’s almost an insult to bring a NAS grain from reconditioned casks to a party like this! Even the official marketing pitches it as a mixer or a dram for whisky novices.
The last part of the evening, an informal seminar, took place in the newly refurbished and resplendent Castlehill Room. Chandeliers made from suspended cask staves and blown glass light covers hung from the cupola above a very expensive looking carpet. The SWE director, Susan Morrison, forebade Richard Paterson from christening this with whisky in her preamble. To howls of laughter later, Paterson, with apparent impunity, duly sluiced his glass on said carpet, feigning to have forgotten. The blenders each took turns to recount anecdotes, some funny (and unrepeatable), some informative and we were treated to a last dram, the travel retail exclusive Jura Turas Mara along with a chunk of christmas cake. The mixture of bourbon barrels, sherry butts, French oak casks and port pipes sounds intriguing but perhaps my taste buds had been treated too much as it tasted young and flavour-led to me with quite a rough finish. The question of NAS and fancy names instead of numbers was indeed raised by one audience member. Interestingly John Ramsey, who was chairing (and is stepping down as a judge) referenced ‘fff… marketing people’ before batting the question to Caroline Martin for a thoroughly corporate defence of NAS (age statements are ‘restrictive’, etc). This was a jolly event so the representatives weren’t given a hard time though someone cheekily invited Richard Paterson to tell us a little about the Dalmore Paterson Collection that is currently on sale in Harrods for the princely sum of £987,500. Paterson talks a good game and referenced the work that had gone into the hand written ledger and the exclusive historic materials that come with the collection but he was unabashed in admitting that it is aimed squarely at the likes of Russian billionaires to whom a million quid is petty cash. Despite a couple of prospective sales falling through over the last two years he seemed confident of a sale. One slight ‘exclusive’ came from Fukoyo who, when questioned, seemed to indicate that Suntory had stocks of Scotch whisky matured in Mizunara (Japanese oak) casks though no further details were forthcoming.
The atmosphere, as alluded to, was jovial and, dare I say, a little laddish. Paterson for one clearly enjoys holding court. There was ribaldry and teasing among the ‘old boys’ who, it seems, go back a long way and are familiar enough to ridicule each other in public. Caroline Martin had the most corporate air, fielding questions with deadpan manner. Indeed, as some attendees chatted with me outside the venue afterwards, she was the first to leave trailing her pull-along suitcase. It was like a wee vignette of an industry in which there are entrepreuners and individuals with big personalities but also one which has been co-opted by giant corporations and businesslike reserve.
There was a highlight of the evening for me (and others) that I haven’t covered yet, the charity raffle. Tickets cost £20 but each entrant was guaranteed a bottle of whisky in excess of this value. I certainly hit the jackpot with a (plain packaged) bottle of Whyte & Mackay 40 Year Old Blended Scotch, the official bottling is still available from some Web sites for around £630! There were many very desirable bottles up for grabs but, at £20 for a bottle, everyone was a winner. Richard Paterson was kind enough to autograph and date my bottle but it instantly put me in a quandary about whether to drink it or sell it. I’m very much of the opinion that whisky is there to be drunk but, when something like this falls into one’s lap, it creates a dilemma. I appreciate the packaging will bring down the value but it has good provenance and, with a fair wind, could sell for a decent sum of money. What would you do?
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